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Making Friends – How Parents Can Help Their Kids With Friendship
Some children have no problem. They start school and immediately have a gang – a best friend, birthday party invitations, play dates, sleep-overs. For other children, the social aspects of school can be difficult. Sometimes this is because the child has a diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder, Autism, or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and sometimes the child is just shy. As a therapist with years of experience working in schools, I have seen how difficult the school day can be if a child has not figured out how to make and maintain friends. I know there are some simple steps that you as a parent can take to help make friendships easier for your child.
1. Talk about it
The first step is to talk to your child and make sure there really is a problem. Some children are more introverted than others and need a lot of alone time. Not every child wants to be the class president or the most popular student. But every child needs to learn how to get along with their peers, work in a group and have satisfying social interactions. Try to discuss friendships with your child and set a realistic goal, such as a couple of friends, an occasional play date or someone to have lunch with.
2. Get to know other parents
Other parents are your best resource. A friendly parent can help pave the way for your own child, introduce him to the gang, invite him for play dates. Also, parents may not be comfortable extending or accepting invitations to their children when they do not know their parents. Parents of young children usually wait together at school while he is out. For even the most introverted parents, this can be a low-key, easy place to meet people and a great opportunity to allow a little after school free play. Try to show up a little early, smile and be sociable, and let your child have some free time with their classmates. For older children, see if you can volunteer at the school and meet other parents there.
3. Try to join groups
Find a group your child can be a part of, whether it’s scouts, drama, an after-school class, or a sports team. This new environment can allow your child’s special skills to shine in a way that they don’t in the classroom. It is also a new opportunity to meet other parents. A bonus is that often the whole team is invited to a pizza party or a camping trip. Of course, if the family is invited, you should make every effort to participate as well, even if your own introverted nature makes this difficult.
4. Work on social skills
This brings us to the next point, social skills. When your child is playing after school or at the pizza party, you have the perfect opportunity to watch him interact. Is your child fussy, clingy, whiny or otherwise difficult? Public places are not ideal to discuss the problems you see. Wait until you get home and talk to your child, pulling out the friendship goals you’ve already set. If you see major problems with social skills, you may want to address this further in a social skills group.
5. Pay attention to appearance
Your child may not care about his appearance, and perhaps you admire his independent spirit. Unfortunately, other children may not be as open-minded. If friends are affected, some degree of compliance may be a compromise you are willing to make. Look at other children at school. Does your child keep up with the rest of the class? You don’t have to bow down to fashion and buy the most stylish and expensive clothes, but maybe a simple move away from too-short pants and too big bright sweatshirts will help your child be one of the gang. Pay attention to hygiene and personal habits as well. Behavior that is OK in kindergarten can be a social block in middle school.
6. Beware of being too different
Your child may be brilliant, unique and know all about acting, and you can see how fun it is, but the truth is, other kids may just think it’s weird. Don’t think your child has to give up his special interests and talents. Aim instead to complement these areas with something more universally accepted. Sit down as a family and watch popular TV shows or go to a blockbuster movie. School is like your office, where everyone is discussing the Super Bowl or the presidential primary. At school, your child will have an easier time if they’ve been to the school carnival or seen the latest episode of Hannah Montana.
7. Take the plunge – Invite someone over
For more reserved parents, the idea of a child’s play-date can be a bit daunting. But it is an important step, because it helps move the friendship outside the realm of just “school friends.” If your child hasn’t had a play date before, relax. You don’t need to structure activities or entertain children. Discuss in advance what activities your child would like to do with a friend and try to get out of the picture. As a backup, set up some simple projects in case things don’t go smoothly, like an easy craft project or a movie to watch on TV. You may want to set up a private cue to use with your child if you need to correct your child’s behavior.
8. A special friend
Sometimes, all it takes is one special friend. If your child can make just one friend, it eases the way throughout the school day. He will have a project partner and someone to have lunch with. Bullies will usually choose a solo target rather than a pair. For many children, one friend is enough.
9. Encourage more than one friend
That said, one friend can be a problem. Depending on the situation, your child may be asking too much of his lonely friend. Watch for signs that your best friend is feeling overwhelmed. This may take the form of complaints from your child that the best friend invited someone else over for a sleepover, or wouldn’t eat lunch together as usual. This should not mean the end of the friendship. It just signals to your child that he should move a bit and socialize with some other children.
10. If all else fails
If these simple steps do not help, do not despair! There are many other options. The teacher can step in and help your child. Many teachers will deliberately set up tables and work groups to help shy children socialize. Find a social skills group by talking to the principal, or searching online. Therapists and other mental health professionals can work on their own with you and your child.
Finally, progress takes time. Your child doesn’t have to get there all at once and things may get easier as your child grows. The group dynamics of each class will be different. Middle schools can provide more children to choose from, so your child can find a group where he fits. Just keep striving and trying new things.
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